Thursday, March 06, 2008


Dueling Acronyms Threaten Paris-Nice

The hot topic in professional cycling these days is the ASO vs. UCI brawl that, for the second year running, is threatening to bring Paris-Nice to its knees. As of Wednesday evening, the UCI is threatening to suspend and fine participating riders and teams, while ASO is more or less telling the UCI to go to hell and organizing their race under the auspices of the French federation, and the teams are caught in the middle. Though Paris-Nice is the race in immediate danger, the implications of this little spat will extend far beyond the “race to the sun.” But there’s already been far too much written about the conflict as a whole, and much of what’s out there only seems to cloud the issues. So let’s concentrate on how simple this little spat really is.

On, an unattributed ASO source provides the clearest view yet of what ASO wants – for Paris-Nice to remain a prominent race, and to be able to decide who gets into the races it owns. The UCI, on the other hand, wants ASO to adhere to the ProTour system it signed up for and invite all of the ProTour teams. Otherwise, it will not sanction the race. Simple.

Of course, that simple disagreement gets muddied by the underlying struggle for control of the sport, ASO’s ownership of some of the sport’s hottest properties, and the UCI’s ham-handed dealings in licensing, drug testing, the Olympics, and the world championships. In other words, everybody has threats to make, and valuable assets they can withhold. But at the root, the conflict is simple, and it all has to do with the ill-fated ProTour.

So why is the UCI still shouting from the wheelhouse of the sinking ProTour ship? One guess is that, having taken large sums of money from teams for admittance to the ProTour clubhouse, the UCI is now in serious jeopardy of having to issue some big refund checks. In essence, they promised something that they didn’t have the authority to deliver – guaranteed entry into the sport’s biggest events. It was a clumsy power grab, sort of a power grope, which ultimately didn’t work. Another, simpler theory is that the UCI just doesn’t want to admit what an overambitious and underplanned boondoggle the ProTour really is.

But whether or not the ProTour was a sound idea, ASO agreed to it, and now they’re not willing to pay the piper. Like they did last year with Unibet, ASO has chosen one team as a sacrificial lamb to bait the hook for the UCI. Since Unibet folded, ASO is trolling with Astana this year, and it looks like the UCI has swallowed the whole rig and is thrashing about helplessly at the end of the line. It’s hard to say exactly what ASO’s big picture goal is, but it isn’t keeping Astana from racing the Criterium International. Regardless of its motivation, by testing the UCI’s resolve using races like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege as bargaining chips, ASO is coming as close as anyone to breaking the UCI’s authority over the sport.

Meanwhile, as the UCI and ASO battle on mountaintops for the soul of the sport, the defecation rolsl downhill, and the teams and riders have been caught at the bottom of that very slippery slope. Both combatants are looking for support from the folks who actually make the magic happen, while the teams just want to race the big events and get their sponsors some press. Now, whatever action the teams choose will be construed, mistakenly, as an endorsement of one side or the other. But while the UCI and ASO prepare their press releases, the teams are busy reexamining their Paris-Nice lineups, wondering if anyone who dares toe the start line will be on the bench for the remainder of the season. For riders, racing Paris-Nice used to mean you could be in store for great things later in the season; this year it may just mean you’re expendable.

None of that seems quite fair to the teams and the riders, but few things in life are fair. And that’s why we have contracts, which seem to be the missing element in all of the discussion about this dispute. Again, beneath all the bluster, the issues are simple, and the solution – at least in the short term – is also simple. In the short term, dig out those contracts that both parties signed regarding their participation in the ProTour, and have everyone do what the contracts say they're supposed to do. The long-term solution isn’t as simple, but it should start with deciding on a time to declare the current ProTour contracts null and begin designing a system that the UCI, organizers, and teams can all live with. Preferably before next March.


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